Volume 11 Supplement 1
Emergence and dynamics of influenza super-strains
© Coburn et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2011
Published: 25 February 2011
Influenza super-strains can emerge through recombination of strains from birds, pigs, and humans. However, once a new recombinant strain emerges, it is not clear whether the strain is capable of sustaining an outbreak. In certain cases, such strains have caused major influenza pandemics.
Here we develop a multi-host (i.e., birds, pigs, and humans) and multi-strain model of influenza to analyze the outcome of emergent strains. In the model, pigs act as “mixing vessels” for avian and human strains and can produce super-strains from genetic recombination.
We find that epidemiological outcomes are predicted by three factors: (i) contact between pigs and humans, (ii) transmissibility of the super-strain in humans, and (iii) transmissibility from pigs to humans. Specifically, outbreaks will reoccur when the super-strain infections are less frequent between humans (e.g., R 0 =1.4) but frequent from pigs to humans, and a large-scale outbreak followed by successive dampening outbreaks will occur when super-strain infections are frequent between humans (e.g., R 0 =2.3). The average time between the initial outbreak and the first resurgence varies from 41 to 82 years. We determine the largest outbreak will occur when 2.3 <R 0 < 3.8 and the highest cumulative infections occur when 0 <R 0 < 3.0 and is dependent on the frequency of pig-to-human infections for lower R0 values (0 <R 0 < 1.9).
Our results provide insights on the effect of species interactions on the dynamics of influenza super-strains. Counter intuitively, epidemics may occur in humans even if the transmissibility of a super-strain is low. Surprisingly, our modeling shows strains that have generated past epidemics (e.g., H1N1) could resurge decades after they have apparently disappeared.
Until very recently there has been limited attention focused on the role of pigs in the spread of influenza and even less on the possibility of recombination of avian and human viruses in pigs [1–4]. The emergence of the novel strain of influenza A (H1N1) in Mexico [5, 6] in April 2009 has shown birds, pigs and humans can all play a role in the formation of new strains and can be transmitted from pigs to humans . Prior to the outbreak, much of the surveillance against pandemic influenza has been focused on avian strains (e.g., H5N1).
Influenza pandemics occur when a transmissible strain emerges into the human population in which humans have little or no immunity. One way this can occur is when a strain emerges in humans from a reservoir host species (e.g., birds or pigs). In fact, the three previous influenza pandemics (1918 H1N1, 1957 H2N2, and 1968 H3N2) emerged to humans from a non-human reservoir and were subtypes that originated in avian hosts . In fact, strong evidence suggests all influenza subtypes trace back to avian origin, implying the avian virus emerged and established itself in mammals from birds. Avian strains such as the H5N1 have proven to be the most threatening particularly to humans upon infection, killing approximately 50 to 70 percent of those infected . An H5N1 pandemic appears unlikely in that the strain has been shown to transmit poorly between humans. Furthermore, a strain with such high virulence would also need to be highly transmissible in order for a pandemic to occur.
Genetic changes in influenza provide new opportunities for pathogen emergence in humans, particularly through recombination. When coinfection occurs, two strains may interact and recombine to form a new reassortant strain. Intermediate hosts, such as pigs and domestic poultry, play an important role in influenza infection between birds and human. Pigs are also capable of infection by human influenza viruses . It has been reported that pigs are capable of infecting humans [4, 10, 11] and are likely candidates as intermediate hosts for coinfection of interspecies strains .
Several empirical studies indicate that not only avian and human influenza strains are likely to establish infection in pigs but also that pigs are capable of passing newly reassortant strains to humans. Strikingly, half of Java’s pigs in 2005 were reported to be infected with avian influenza H5N1 . In 1999, a strain of avian origin (H4N6) was isolated from pigs in Canadian swine farms . Furthermore, the previously known H1N1 swine virus emerging in Europe in 1979 was antigenically similar to avian strains . The avian virus is more likely to establish infection in swine [15, 16]. Evidence for human strains being transmitted to swine was documented when a swine flu H1N2 outbreak in Japan’s pigs was determined to be a result of reassortment between swine H3N2 and human H1N1 .
Mathematical models have been used to predict epidemics and develop intervention strategies [18–20]; however, these models have not been developed to include both recombination and cross-species transmission. Here we present a theoretical model that tracks influenza transmission dynamics within and among three species (i.e., birds, pigs, and humans). The model describes how new “super-strains” (i.e., strains that are highly virulent to humans) can arise if pigs act as “mixing vessels” for the recombination of species-specific strains. We use the model to determine the epidemiological outcomes of a reassortant super-strain by varying the factors that influence the strain’s incidence in humans (i.e., transmissibility within humans, pig-to-human transmissibility, and pig-to-human contact). Furthermore, we determine the state(s) (or parameter ranges) of a super-strain that will result in (i) the greatest single epidemic and (ii) the highest cumulative prevalence.
We calibrated the MSMH model using data on humans and swine in Southeast Asia. The two human infectious classes are parameterized to represent individuals infected with a seasonal strains (e.g., H1N1 and H3N2) and a transmissible super-strain with disease virulence similar to the H5N1 strain (i.e., 68 percent disease-induced mortality rate) . We chose reasonable parameter values for human influenza transmissibility in Thailand [8, 22] and set similar values to sustain prevalent levels of avian and human reassortants in pigs ; see Section 3 of the Appendix. Population growth parameters and initial population densities for humans and pigs were determined from census data in Thailand for the twentieth century; see Section 3 of the Appendix. We assume the rate in which a coinfected pig produces a super-strain ψ p is 0.1. We define the pig-to-human contact transmissibility γ p as the probability per unit time that a super-strain infected pig will come into contact with and infected human. That is, γ p is a product of two factors: (i) the rate at which a human will come into contact with a pig and (ii) the rate at which a pig will successfully infect a human with the super-strain. Similarly, the parameters β h,1 and β h,2 are the transmissibility of the seasonal and super- strains, respectively, to susceptible humans (S h ). The transmissibility of the super-strain to seasonal infected humans (or super-transmissibility) is δ h , which we will assume is equal to β h,2 (i.e., super-strain transmission is the same for susceptible (S h ) and seasonal infectives (I h,1 )). The basic reproductive number R 0 for each strain is the average number of secondary infections that one infectious individual can generate in an entirely susceptible population . The R 0 's for endemic strains (i.e., excluding the super-strain in humans) in each species range between 1 and 2.5. We examine R 0 values from 0 to 9.5 for a super-strain in humans  together with pig-to-human contact transmissibility ranging from 0 to 100 percent, which allows us to consider all epidemiologically relevant cases for past influenza pandemics.
At lower levels of transmission, we found that super-strains were continuously produced in the pig population, but only sustained at a low level (Figs. 2A-B) so they did not pose a threat to the human population. This example correlates to cases when the virus infects a few but is unable to establish itself after the initial outbreak, e.g., the “New Jersey” Incident in the USA in 1976  and perhaps other outbreaks involving a few individuals as described in .
When the super-strain is highly transmissible (i.e., approximately as transmissible as 1918 flu, R 0 =2.3), the strain will slowly emerge and cause an “epidemic spike” in humans (Figs. 2C-D). In this case, the resulting outbreak dynamics are influenced predominately by the high transmissibility of the super-strain. A series of dampening outbreaks follow the initial spike with periods of virtually no disease prevalence in humans between epidemic outbreaks. The super-strain outcompetes the preexisting endemic strain, causing the endemic strain to become extinct in humans and hence disappear from the pigs, eliminating the reoccurrence of coinfection and recombination. The time frame between the first two outbreaks ranges from approximately 61 to 69 years (Fig. 3: green). These simulations show features present in the pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1968 in that after the initial pandemic the new super-strain displaces the previously dominant strain , continues to circulate, and becomes endemic but with reduced epidemiological impact.
A similar analysis of cumulative (averaged annually) infections over different time frames shows higher levels of disease prevalence at lower levels of transmissibility. For 200 years, highest cumulative number occurs when 0 <R 0 < 7.6 (Fig. 5B: red-orange), of which there are two maximal states when 2.5 <R 0 < 3.0 and 4.0 <R 0 < 4.5 (Fig. 4B: dark red). In this case, the cumulative number of infectives can be high even when R 0 < 1.9 but depends on the pig-to-human contact transmissibility. For much longer time frames of 500 years (Fig. 5C: dark red) and 1000 years (Fig. 5D: dark red), the maximal prevalence occurs when: 1.9 <R 0 < 3.0 for all levels of interaction, and R 0 < 1.9 with a sufficient level of pig-to-human contact transmissibility. In fact, long-term prevalence is high even when R 0 < 1 (β h,2 < 0.011) and the pig-to-human contact transmission is low (γ p < 0.4, where the lower bound of γ p is dependent on the value of R 0 ). Furthermore, the epidemiological outcome can either be a large-scale outbreak or milder reoccurring outbreaks to sustain maximal prevalence of a super-strain.
Cross-species interaction and transmission of influenza creates a reservoir of super-strains in pigs; therefore, the continuous introduction of super-strains into humans is almost inevitable. Our modeling is consistent with this notion in that it shows how a super-strain is likely to emerge in humans from an intermediate host, such as pigs. However, we have found that, once a super-strain has emerged, three different outcomes are possible: (i) large scale outbreak, (ii) milder reoccurring outbreaks, and (iii) no outbreak. Examples of each types of outbreak have been well observed in nature. Our results show there may be little to no infectious activity during interepidemic periods; hence, epidemic forecasting may be difficult until the early stages of an outbreak. This is particularly important to ensure vaccine development in that detection may not be possible until an outbreak is significant. The more recent 2009 H1N1 strain was a reassortant of avian, human, and swine strains, and its gene segments have been circulating undetected for an extended period . Our results also show that the greatest outbreak occurs when 2.3 <R 0 < 3.8, which may be a consequence of strain competition and interspecies infection. That is, pig-to-human infection provides a competitive advantage to the super-strain over the seasonal. Higher R 0 values for the super-strain may result in competitive exclusion of the seasonal strain, thus suppressing seasonal infections and limiting the opportunity for external infections.
We have demonstrated how genetic recombination and species interactions significantly affect the emergence and dynamics of influenza strains. The notion of reoccurring epidemics is particularly important in that it is specifically driven by species interaction and may explain the disappearance and re-emergence of a subtype many years after an epidemic. We recommend, that in order to obtain further insights into the emergence of influenza super-strains, strain subtypes should be frequently monitored in the major host species (particularly, birds, humans, and pigs). In addition, we recommend comparing various reassortants to identify strains that are more likely to recombine, particularly those that are infectious to humans.
A reassortant of the avian strain such as the H5N1 that can spread from human-to-human poses a great threat, even when transmissibility is low (as shown in our simulation). Although the chance of such an event seems rare, situations like one described in the report  on Java’s pigs suggest that not only is a super-strain able to emerge but that such a strain is likely to emerge. Our results suggest more careful surveillance of influenza in pigs with a specific focus on detecting rare but potentially dangerous recombination events. Unless a global monitoring system is put in place, we will be unable to recognize lurking novel strains that are capable of the next pandemic. Most importantly, our modeling shows the necessity of a global monitoring system to track strain subtypes within different host species to adequately forecast the next pandemic.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
susceptible-infective-susceptible, WHO, World Health Organization.
We would like to acknowledge Sally Blower, Donald L. DeAngelis, Justin T. Okano, Kellie Swanton, and Bradley G. Wagner for useful discussions and comments. The research of CC was partially supported by NSF grant DMS-0816068. The research of SR was partially supported by NSF grant DMS-1022728.
This article has been published as part of BMC Public Health Volume 11 Supplement 1, 2011: Mathematical Modelling of Influenza. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/11?issue=S1.
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